OECD’s Sharon Masterson: ‘We can’t pretend driverless vehicles aren’t coming’

4 May 2018

OECD International Transport Forum manager Sharon Masterson. Image: OECD/ITF

The disruption that is coming from driverless vehicles and other smart technologies cannot be ignored by policymakers, warns the OECD International Transport Forum’s Sharon Masterson.

Sharon Masterson heads the corporate partnership board of the International Transport Forum (ITF), an intergovernmental strategic think tank for the transport sector, at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. She is very involved in helping large cities cope with transportation challenges and how to implement smart mobility actions that make a difference.

She was back in Ireland this week to speak at the Electronomous event in Killarney, which was attended by some of the giants of autotech including makers such as Ford, Nissan and Volvo; systems providers such as Ridecell, Nokia, TomTom, Valeo and Continental; and policy bodies such as EUCAR and OECD.

‘Automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50-70pc in the US and Europe by 2030, with up to 4.4m of the projected 6.4m professional trucking jobs becoming redundant’

Masterson has over 20 years’ experience in the transport and technology sectors working in public, private, IGO (international governmental organisation) and start-up environments.

Previously, she held senior management positions in the corporate world with blue-chip companies like Groupe Air France and Würth in Germany, France, Ireland and Benelux. Currently, in her role at the ITF, she works closely with C-suite executives from leading multinationals like ExxonMobil, Ford, Google, Michelin, Renault Nissan Alliance, Siemens and others,  as well as ministers from 59 ITF-member countries and other high-level policymakers. Her focus is bringing this range of different stakeholders together in policy dialogue, tackling emerging issues and topics such as the sharing economy, innovative mobility and decarbonising transportation.

Masterson is also a founding member and development executive of the Irish in France Association, a non-profit with activities and initiatives for the Irish diaspora in France.

Tell us about the work of the ITF and the responsibilities of your role?

I’m in charge of the Corporate Partnership Board and our role at ITF is to give transport policy advice to our member countries and beyond.

We have a broader membership than OECD, which has 35-member countries. The ITF has 59 member countries including Russia, China and India.

It is our role to give transport policy advice to our ministers of transport. They are our key stakeholders across all modes of transport. We are the only global body that works on all modes of transportation.

We do that in a number of ways. We set up the corporate partnership board in 2013 so we could take insights from the private sector and include that in our policy advice to ministers of transport. This is because we understand it is the corporate sector who really are at the cutting edge of what is happening technologically and who have a lot of insights into not only what is coming out today and tomorrow, but also what is in the pipeline and also in terms of business models that can be important to policymakers.

For example, if you have a minister of transport who is looking after a large investment over a 30-to-40-year period, they will come to us and ask us what it is they should be aware of before making those decisions.

We are not prescriptive, we don’t tell them what to do. We just give them advice and it is up to them what they do with it.

Sometimes we encourage them to go to Silicon Valley to speak to a specific company that might be doing something interesting in terms of shared mobility or visit another country about best practices, or share their experiences of public-private partnerships in terms of successes or mistakes to interpret best practice.

We work with a number of different companies such as Valeo in Ireland, but also Ford, Bosch, Siemens, Uber and ExxonMobil, to name a few.

What does the future hold in this area?

These companies come together with us and we look at what technologies and issues we believe policymakers should be looking at but are not just yet out there.

This includes things like shared mobility and how that can contribute to easing congestion, easing or reducing CO2 emissions and helping us achieve our transport policy and societal goals.

What we do is available for free and is a resource for all kinds of transport policymakers and decision-makers, from CEOs to ministers, as well as students and the next generation as well.

What would be the biggest policy issues when it comes to driverless technology and planning for smart cities?

A recent example is Uber, a company that basically jumped out of nowhere in recent years and all of a sudden policymakers have it on the top of their list of things they really need to address.

It is about making them aware of what is happening and what the implications can be and how certain technologies can help us to leapfrog and achieve the overall goals of society.

Some of the topics we are looking at now and over the coming year are not even in the minds of policymakers. Certainly, companies are looking at these and we are helping policymakers leapfrog and short circuit the time to be aware of what is going on and what they need to be addressing.

We do what we do in a very impartial manner. That’s our job, our unique selling point. There are thousands of reports out there looking at very different angles, but it is our job to take a holistic view of any topic that we look at and make sure that it is impartial.

When we look at app-based rides and taxi services, we brought together executives from Uber and Lyft in the US, the taxi companies in France and Germany, the New York Taxi Commission, etc, so that we could have a dialogue about this topic and come to a common agreement, which at the time seemed impossible.

This involved a united effort from both sides to inform ministers, and we produced a report on what this group has discussed and here are the principles to regulation in that area.

We developed an agreed position or outcome from that group under the umbrella of corporate partnership and used that very concretely. Because, otherwise, you literally have a list of thought pieces from both sides of the table and there is nothing that brings that together.

The dialogue is very important in everything that we do. This is underpinned by the qualitative analysis that we also do here on data and statistics.

If this debate wasn’t being fostered, what’s the worst that could happen?

One of the dangers in respect to autonomous vehicles, and we did a big study last year on autonomous trucks, was that policymakers don’t actually discuss it.

We bury our heads in the sand and don’t address issues like employment. We can’t pretend that driverless vehicles aren’t coming.

One of the things we did last year was bring together the International Transport Workers Federation and a number of companies looking at a study on driverless trucks, and tried to figure out how we can also address the labour side of things and be prepared for that.

If we just pretend that it is not coming, that’s not the solution. I think that one of the main things we are doing with the corporate partnership board is ensuring that there is a two-way dialogue. If you have a company that is a start-up or has developed a disruptive new product, and if they bring that out and it’s not fitting for the regulations, then there’s an issue.

And then there’s the time lag. So it is important that the policymakers understand what the implications of regulation of that policy will be through a dialogue with the private sector and that also the private sector has the opportunity of informing regulators before they make those decisions.

Dialogue can be crucial. Latvia is currently our presidency country. We had a meeting in Riga in April, bringing together member countries in discussion to have greater understanding of what is happening before anyone makes any important decisions.

The key is making sure people understand. There is a lot going on and, if you think, specifically in the transport sector, but for each of those ministries there are a lot of areas to regulate and each company is just a specific part of that area in which they are domain experts.

There is a huge brain drain from academia to the private sector and there are a huge amount of possibilities for the private sector to inform those discussions in a positive manner.

In the EU and the US, transport is one of the biggest employers. Do you think the advent of driverless trucks could herald an economic threat?

I would say that governments must consider ways to manage the transition to driverless trucks in order to avoid potential social disruption from job losses. Manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many governments are actively reviewing their regulations. Preparing now for potential negative social impact of job losses will mitigate the risks in case a rapid transition occurs.

Self-driving trucks will help save costs, lower emissions and make roads safer. They could also address the shortage of professional drivers faced by the road transport industry. But automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50-70pc in the US and Europe by 2030, with up to 4.4m of the projected 6.4m professional trucking jobs becoming redundant. Even if the rise of driverless trucks dissuades newcomers from trucking, over 2m drivers in the US and Europe could be directly displaced, according to scenarios examined for our ITF report.

The report makes four recommendations to help manage the transition to driverless road freight:

  • Establish a transition advisory board to advise on labour issues
  • Consider a temporary permit system to manage the speed of adoption
  • Set international standards, road rules and vehicle regulations for self-driving trucks
  • Continue pilot projects with driverless trucks to test vehicles, network technology and communications protocols
Would you be optimistic that autonomous vehicles will benefit society positively in the long run?

That is the role of the policymaker. It is very important that they understand what the potential is, positively or negatively, and steer it for society, consumers and citizens, to ensure that what ever happens, happens in a positive way for society.

They need to put a framework in place to make sure this happens for the benefit of society.

I understand Ireland is going to be given the presidency of the ITF in 2019. What will this do for the autonomous vehicle sector here?

Ireland is having the presidency of the International Transport Forum from May 2019 until May 2020 and that means that we will be bringing all 59 member countries and the corporate partnership board comprising high-level executives from all of the major companies to Ireland.

Ireland can take a leading role in an intergovernmental organisation and it is an opportunity for Ireland to show what it does in terms of technology related to transport.

There is quite a lot happening in Ireland already. Companies like Cubic Telecom and Tyrecheck in Shannon are leading the way. There is also the Propeller accelerator in Shannon, which is fantastic. Ireland has a huge history in transport and aviation, and Propeller is bringing a lot of transport start-ups to the Shannon region in terms of drone technology.

We are doing quite a lot in Ireland in terms of the future of transport and we should be very proud of it.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years